Bruce Bartrug's Rio De Dios: Thirteen Histories of the Los Angeles River
The Los Angeles River starts northwest of downtown Los Angeles in the suburb called Calabasas and ends in the port town of San Pedro twenty miles south of city hall. Rio de Dios: Thirteen Histories of the Los Angeles Rive is unquestionably a book with a sense of place. It is about a place where ecology and wild life go by the wayside for the benefit of urbanization and car culture. While passing its way through the fragmented city, the Los Angeles River also represents the hopes and dreams of indigenous inhabitants like the Chumash and related Native Americans who once gathered sustenance from these waters. “Taggers,” are artists who cover its now concrete walls with graffiti, while local vagrants and children find it a dangerous place to live and play. Then there are the bird species that light upon the waters and the bacteria living within. These are all integral parts of the river’s narrative.
These Thirteen Histories of the Los Angeles River chronicle an important story. Like the haphazard nature of the river itself, the book educates and entertains through an incongruity of styles. Important scientific and cultural information must be disseminated if the reader is to become familiar with the Los Angeles River. To this end, Peter Bowler’s term-paper-like report tells the first history. It is strong in scientific facts, full of interesting data and staggered with overreaching vocabulary and Latin names for species and vegetation. Not a Sunday afternoon leisure time read, but a serious scientific explanation of the artwork that follows.
The “Second History” by Bruce Bartrug is a set of moody gray illustrations that are more than a visual aid to Bowler’s instructions; they are education with a soft edge. Had this sort of artwork covered the book or at least adorned the opening pages, the relationship of scientific thought and poetry would have been more apparent.
Charles Hood tells the eleven remaining histories with a collection of smart poetry and prose that brings energy and musicality to the story of the Los Angeles River. Here is an excerpt from the poem that opens his section “Mal Sueno”:
Alders will bud as black rails call;
New condors will hunch like winos in the rain.
When the levees fail and Lakewood looks like
the Lower Ninth Ward, nobody will say, as most
do now “what, Los Angeles has a river?”
If the purpose of Rio de Dios: Thirteen Histories of the Los Angeles River was to be a lyrical homage to the fascination and lore of the L.A. River, a better introduction might have been this poem, Mal Sueno, which serves to intrigue and challenge the reader to learn more about the history and science of this place on the bed of the Los Angeles River.
Rio De Rios: Thirteen Histories of the Los Angeles River, copyright © 2008 by Bruce Bartrug, Peter Bowler, Charles Hood, Red Hen Press, 144 pp., $18.00, ISBN-13 978-1-59709-090-2.